Willow marched out of the school, not bothering with her cloak in the chilly April air. The others were following behind as she headed straight to Miss Mercana’s office door. After knocking, Miss Mercana called from inside.
Willow entered and walked over to Miss Mercana’s desk, but the other four just huddled inside the door. Before speaking up Willow heard Incheon muttering to the others.
“Like watching a quidditch pile-up happen...”
“Hello, Willow,” said Miss Mercana. “Are you here to pick up Fred early?”
“No, ma’am,” said Willow. Now that she was here, she didn’t know how to ask what she wanted to know...and wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer anyway. “Why do I always watch Fred during the full moon?” she finally managed to ask.
“I don’t know what you mean,” replied Miss Mercana. She crossed her arms and sat back in her chair.
“Why do we have a bear enclosure in the woods?” Willow was still dancing around asking her the question directly.
“How would you know that?” Miss Mercana’s eyes were now wide, her gaze boring into Willow.
“Miss Mercana,” said Sib, butting into the conversation. “We know you have...what’s that word again, Incheon?”
“Right, that,” said Sib. “We ain’t gonna tell nobody, but we gotta know if that’s the reason you got expelled from Gampton Hall.”
Willow took a huge breath. She never could have gotten through this without the others. Miss Mercana looked deflated. Her arms fell to her sides and she looked down at the floor.
“Come back after classes,” she said in a barely audible whisper.
“Miss Mercana...” Lily started, but she was cut off.
“After classes,” she said more forcefully. “There’s not enough time now. Go.” The five of them left the classroom and headed back to the school building. They heard the bell ring from outside signaling the end of their lunch. As Willow, Lily and Sib headed for Alchemy, Willow’s head was abuzz. How could Miss Mercana be a monster? She had always been so nice to her and had even saved her when Corey first attacked. None of it made sense.
After the last bell rang, they all met in the back of the school before they headed down to Miss Mercana’s office. The early April air was still cold, but the rain that had been falling earlier in the afternoon had cleared away.
“What do you know?” Miss Mercana asked them after she had ushered them into the room, she was standing and didn’t offer for any of them to sit down.
“After we found the devourer, we stuck around to find out what was going on,” said Incheon. “We heard that you were in trouble too, but we didn’t know why. We followed you when you left and went into the woods.”
“We just wanted to help,” said Willow. “Instead, all we found was the bear enclosure.”
“We know that you were the only person who has ever been expelled from Gampton Hall,” said Lily. “And since we’re about to be the second through sixth, we wanted to know how it happened to you.”
“Since you give the pseudodragon to Willow every full moon, I think you have arktanthropy,” said Incheon. “But I don’t know for sure that’s why you were expelled.”
“But we ain’t gonna tell nobody that you have it.” finished Sib. “We just need help is all.”
Miss Mercana half-smiled at them. “Okay, so you’ve figured me out. Sooner than most of the teachers, I’ll grant you. Now what do you want from me?”
Willow was shocked. She thought for sure that Miss Mercana would deny it...that she would show them that she wasn’t a werebear. She couldn’t say anything. It was Sib that broke the momentary silence.
“Ma’am,” he asked. “We don’t want to be expelled, and we was hopin’ you might be able to tell us how to not have that happen.”
“Well you’re wrong in thinking I was expelled,” Miss Mercana said. “I was simply asked to leave and I left.”
“What’s the difference?” asked Incheon.
“If you’re going to be expelled, you have to do something rather awful and then a tribunal of professors has to agree with the Chancellor’s recommendation. If you’re going to leave, you just have to stop coming.”
“But what happened?” asked Lef.
“Arktanthropy happened,” replied Miss Mercana. “I was stupid and unlucky and got mauled by a werebear during the full moon when I was in my sophomore year. My mom and I hid it as best we could, but there are only so many full moons that you can miss in a school year before someone starts asking questions. Eventually I was discovered and it was only because the Chancellor was my uncle that I was able to leave without it being plastered all over the front page of the New York Ghost.”
“Chancellor McCracken is your uncle?” said Willow.
“Yes. How else do you think I’m able to stay here and work this job? You five aren’t the only ones who know about my condition. If he goes, I won’t be far behind. Now as for you getting expelled. Well, it’s no secret that the Chancellor has it in for four of you, and he’s looking for an excuse to get you out of the school. I don’t know that there’s much I can do. The Chancellor has been under an incredible amount of pressure from MACUSA from the sorting and it just got worse when your dreams came to light. It all has to do with the prophecy.”
“The prophecy again,” said Willow. “Is it really so important?”
"Most people believe that the prophecy relates to the end of the Statute of Secrecy. Being discovered by the nomaj is every mage’s worst nightmare. It would mean the end of the world as we know it.”
“But nobody knows what the prophecy says,” said Willow.
“That’s true,” replied Miss Mercana. “But it doesn’t stop MACUSA from making all its decisions based on it. Even the devourers...” she hesitated after mentioning the bugs.
“Can you tell us about that cave where we found the devourer?” asked Sib. “There was a secret door that we couldn’t get through.”
“Nor would you ever have been able to get through,” she replied. “Come with me, I’ll give you what answers I can, but I don’t think you’re going to like them.” She grabbed her cloak and led the way out of her office and into the woods, toward where Esbee had led them before. Willow was scared to retrace their steps, but followed along with the others. After a minute of following Miss Mercana into the woods, Willow pulled Lef aside and they waited until everyone else had passed. “Is it a good idea to let her lead us into the woods?” she asked. “Won’t she turn into a bear and attack us all?”
Lef looked at her with a puzzled look on her face. “Why would she do that? Werebears are docile.” Lef looked toward Miss Mercana. “Besides, the full moon hasn’t risen yet. She probably needs our help more than anything.”
For the next ten minutes, they wound their way through the damp leafless woods. While a few trees were starting to bud, Willow still thought it was creepy. She didn’t feel comfortable following Miss Mercana, knowing what she knew, but they were approaching the part of the woods where the cave should have been. Instead of dense woods with a small rock outcropping, Miss Mercana led them into a clearing in the woods consisting of blasted tree stumps, scorched ground and a small pond at the base of a blackened, melted cliff. It looked to Willow like a fire bomb had exploded.
“This is where the cliff cave used to be,” Miss Mercana explained. “It was where we bred and kept devourers. When you came back to my office with one, we knew the protections we had put in place had been breached and we had to destroy this place before any more got out. That night, fifty mages descended on this area and poured out enough energy at these rocks to melt them into the ground. This hole is all that’s left of that mistake. I heard there were even nomaj reports of the light given off by this event.”
Willow remembered the mages congregating in the building that evening and the story on the TV news about the meteor strike from a month ago...near Lancaster.
“Why were you breeding devourers?” asked Lily. “I thought you said they were incredibly dangerous.”
“They are,” she replied. “We were breeding them because we were told to. Even though we all voiced our concerns, it’s not like someone in my condition can refuse and still hope to keep my job.”
“But who told you to?” Lily continued.
“Well, the Chancellor told me to, but it was actually someone at MACUSA who told him to do it. I know you’re going to ask why and the short answer is ‘I don’t know’, but I can tell you what I think.”
“Although I don’t know what the prophecy says,” she continued, “I do know that part of it suggests the government is going to be overwhelmed because it doesn’t have enough mages to fight. Ever since I started here, the Chancellor has been asking me to see if I can train wyverns and manticores to obey a mage’s command. That’s the reason we have those creatures here. Normally, they wouldn’t be anywhere near us. They are both incredibly dangerous to wizard-kind, and manticores in particular are dangerous because they are inherently resistant to magic. This is a trait they share with very few other magical creatures - one of which is the devourer. I think the Department of Magic was having us breed devourers so that they could transfigure them into manticores if they ever believed that those manticores could be controlled to fight for us.”
“I don’t understand,” said Lef. “Why wouldn’t they just transfigure rocks or rats or something into manticores. Why devourers?”
“The third exception to Gamp’s elemental law of Transfiguration,” explained Incheon. “I only remember it because we were lectured on it, but the third exception is 'essence'. Don’t you remember the cockatrice?”
Willow remembered back to that lesson with Mr. Puterschmidt. He had transfigured a worm into what she thought was the most ugly looking rooster she’d ever seen. It didn’t have any feathers and where the chicken wings should have been looked like bat wings instead. Several students, upon seeing it yelled and covered their eyes. In their natural state, cockatrices turn people into stone with their gaze, but since the worm wasn’t inherently magical and couldn’t turn people into stone, neither could the transfigured cockatrice.
“Since the rats aren’t magically resistant,” said Willow out loud, “when they were transfigured into manticores, the manticores wouldn’t be magically resistant either.”
“Exactly, Willow” said Miss Mercana. “A devourer transfigured into a manticore would have the same magic resistance as the original bug...assuming you could transfigure it in the first place.” Willow smiled at her in spite of herself.
“But why wouldn’t they just use manticores?” Lily asked. “Why go to all the trouble?”
“Because manticores are incredibly rare. Only one has ever been caught in the last decade, and that’s only because it was an infant when its mother was killed. That’s the one we have here. Breeding them is next to impossible.”
As they walked back out of the woods toward the school, Lef was asking Miss Mercana about being a werebear.
“What will happen if others find out?” she asked. Willow was walking right behind them and overheard the conversation. “Would they send you to jail too?”
“Probably not,” said Miss Mercana. “Many of the teachers already know or have figured it out, but if any of the parents knew, I’d lose my job for sure. Lycanthropes have been hunted to near extinction and although they didn’t put the same restrictions on werebears as they did on werewolves, there’s no way the parents would let me stay here.”
“Is there anything we can do to help?” asked Lef.
“Thank you Lef,” she replied warmly. “But honestly, I don’t know how you can. My employment here depends entirely on the Chancellor remaining. If he goes, I go, and with the debacle at the sorting and now the devourers, I don’t see how MACUSA will let him stay for another year.”
“What will happen to you?” Lef continued.
“I don’t know,” said Miss Mercana. “I doubt anyone will come looking for me, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.”
They heard the snap of a twig behind them and the five of them immediately spun their heads around and Willow felt adrenalin kick in. She readied herself to run, but Miss Mercana continued as if nothing had happened.
“Don’t we have to worry about the Wendigo?” Willow asked.
“Wendigo?” replied Miss Mercana. “Not here. Why?”
“When we left the bear enclosure, we was followed all the way out,” said Sib. “I heard something chasing us through the woods and saw its eyes. I thought it might have been the Wendigo.”
“That’s doubtful,” said Miss Mercana, holding a branch out of the way as they passed underneath. “My guess is that the dryads were the ones following you. They like to play tricks on people. That’s one of the reasons we have the blink dogs. The dogs frighten the dryads away and keep them from causing trouble on the school grounds.”
“Dryads!” said Sib. “I wouldn’t have guessed.”
“Besides,” added Miss Mercana with a half-smile. “If it had been Wendigo hunting you, you wouldn’t have heard a sound.”
Once they left the woods, Willow reached over and took Lef’s hand. “Go with me to pick up Fred,” she whispered.
“Oh come on,” replied Lef. “You can’t tell me you’re afraid of her now? She’s the same person she’s been all year.”
“Just come with me, please?” begged Willow.
“All right,” Lef nodded her head and followed her as she went to Miss Mercana’s office to get Fred. After they walked inside, Miss Mercana looked at Willow. Willow’s gaze faltered and she looked at the floor. It was Lef who broke the silence.
“Miss Mercana,” she said. “Did you know that Sib carved a pseudodragon out of wood? It has a remarkable likeness to Fred.”
“Really? I’d like to see that,” she said. Willow took her bag from her back and reached inside. Pulling out the pseudodragon carving, she put it on Miss Mercana’s desk.
“It’s beautiful,” said Miss Mercana. “You said Sib carved this, Lef?”
Lef nodded and Miss Mercana looked over the carving, handing it back to Willow after a minute. Reluctantly, Willow reached out and took it from her, putting it back in her bag.
“I see you don’t feel the same way about me as you did a few hours ago,” Miss Mercana said to Willow. “I, on the other hand, feel just the opposite.” Willow looked up at her with a puzzled expression on her face. “Now that you know what affects me,” she continued. “You aren’t just keeping Fred as a favor, you’re keeping him safe. I don’t think anything would happen to him if he were to stay with me, but I don’t have control when I’m in bear form, so I feel that much more comfortable with you watching him. Thank you.”
“You’re…you’re welcome,” stammered Willow. She took Fred’s cage from Miss Mercana and walked out of her office, feeling foolish for being afraid.
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